Ken Bloom: The Bowed Duldcimer

History

The idea of bowing the dulcimer is a very old one and is easily traceable back to at least the 18th century. Before the Civil War, this technique was common. There are examples of older bowed dulcimers in the Mercer Museum in Pennsylvania with their original bows. I have also had reports of others hanging on walls in West Virginia. There are also accounts that tell us there were areas of the country where the instrument was only played with a bow. The evidence is still spotty but this manner of playing seems to have continued right down to the modern era. There is a picture in Jean Ritchie's first dulcimer book of a lady playing her dulcimer with a bow.

I was first aware of the technique back in the 70's and used to do it with some regularity on my first dulcimer. Since the bridge was flat, it was only possible to bow the low or the high string and so the technique was a pleasant effect but wasn't very versatile.

While doing a recording with Lois Hornbostel and Jeff Furman, I used this old approach to add to some fiddle tunes we were recording. As the tape was rolling, it occurred to me that I could certainly build an instrument that would make much better use of the bowing technique as well as have an instrument that would sound much better. This led me on what turned out to be about a four year quest In Search of the Bowed Dulcimer

Construction

My first efforts at building a bowed dulcimer simply involved taking a standard design, adding a sound post and a curved bridge and hoping that would be good enough. At once I had an instrument where it was now possible to bow all the strings either individually or in groups of two, but the tone was very strident. I kind of liked it but it sent most people running from the room. I set about trying to get a sweeter tone. First, I made the instrument deeper. It was better but still not it. Next I took an idea of many stringed instruments and made the instrument deeper at the tailpiece, tapering to a smaller measurement at the peghead. This brought about a dramatic improvement of tone. People were actually beginning to like the sound.

Then I began to investigate the viola da gamba. This predecessor to the violin family was the key to coming up with a much better instrument. I made the soudchest deeper still, retaining the tapering. I added a soundpost plate on the back and began to be much more careful about the soundpost and the bass bar. The final ingredient was in carving the tops and doing careful graduation of the soundboard. The first one I did like this sounded wonderful and this is the instrument I used to make the recording. Since then I have been able to reproduce these results and even improve on them.

Current instruments have carved backs as well as tops. Both plates are carefully graduated and tuned, in keeping with standard violin making practices. I use curly maple for the back and sides, Sitka spruce for the soundboards, Honduras mahogany for the fingerboard staffs and either ebony or rosewood for the fingerboards. Recent experiments have indicated that using maple for the staff gives a stronger and cleaner high octave.

The bridges are made for the instrument using hard maple. The design is one that I have adapted from a Baroque bridge.

Most of my instruments use carefully fitted violin pegs and fine tuners on the tailpiece. This arrangement is lightweight and easy to use. Some people have requested sealed machines instead, and I can do this for an extra charge. Both the top and back have violin style purfling.

For those wanting a fancier instrument, inlay, geometric purfling, and fancy carved pegheads are available. Please don't hesitate to ask. My bowed dulcimers are basically dulcimers on the outside and gambas on the inside. They are a wonderful alternative for those who want that fiddle sound but find a fretless fingerboard Terror Object #142.